August 13, 2012 Permalink
Things have been heavy around here for a while. So I hope you will be pleased to know that this post has no discernible “point” except to hopefully make you laugh. And cringe a little.
I want to tell you the story of my first love.
I first became aware that I was male by virtue of Erin Gray on TV’s Buck Rogers in the 21st Century. I was in early elementary school, but I knew I liked her futuristic jump suits. So I spent much of the time I rode my bike thinking of elaborate peril Erin Gray might find herself in, and how I’d have a heroic and grandiose entrance onto the scene to save her, which in turn would win her heart forever.
But Erin Gray and Wonder Woman’s Lynda Carter were only infatuations. Then came my first love.
Growing up in the parsonage of a Church of God preacher, I developed a peculiar interest in the 80’s sitcom The Facts of Life early in life. I watched it for hours on end. We got our first VCR when I was in the second grade, and it changed my life. I liked to watch movies on it. But the first and primary reason I was excited about the VCR was much more primal: I could record episodes of The Facts of Life onto videocassette and see Blair WHENEVER I WANTED. And thus to this day, there still exists an old box of videotapes where I taped every episode I saw, one 6 hour reel after another of Facts of Life goodness.
Blair was the pretty blonde played by Lisa Whelchel, a spoiled rich diva we could not help but love. I thought she was charming and beautiful all along, but then came the discovery that took me over the top in adoration for fair Lisa: she was even a Christian. I was a preacher’s kid, so as much as I might like how Erin Gray looked in those jumpsuits, I also knew the very fact she would wear them demonstrated she probably did not love the Lord.
It was for similar reasons I was giving up my lengthy flirtation with Amy Grant. I could sit in my room listening to “Angels Watching over Me” over and over again, wishing I could watch over Amy. I started playing drums in adult church when I was 5 years old on a full set, and I’d play the drums to that track. But my affections for Amy were cooling by the time she put out her Unguarded album. I didn’t judge her, but when she appeared on the cover wearing that leopard print jacket, I knew she was too much woman for me. Nobody either at the Lane Street Church of God in Kannapolis nor any of the teenage beauty queens at camp meeting wore leopard print anything, even the edgy ones. That jacket signified a carnal knowledge, an understanding of the things of earth I knew I was not yet prepared for. The fact that Amy was a Christian singer wearing leopard print made her seem like the ultimate bad girl in my world. She might as well have been Madonna parading around on stage in a cone bra as far as I was concerned.
No, I was ready to settle down with a wholesome girl, the kind of all-American beauty I could comfortably take to camp meeting. And that was Lisa Whelchel. Not only was she a Christian—she put out a contemporary Christian album called All Because of You. I had it on vinyl. And I think I may be the world’s foremost expert on this album, because I owned tracing paper and my favorite pastime for a year was to put the sketch paper over the album cover and trace Lisa’s picture repeatedly. It is difficult to find the album today. But the album only made me more deeply head over heels—here is a woman who loves both Jesus AND SYNTHESIZERS. I’m telling you, it’s a keyboard bonanza. As cool as she was on the show, this took Lisa to near mythic status in my mind.
And then came the day when I found (what grace!) that Lisa Whelchel had a family-run fan club. I used my allowance to pay the fee and signed up. I never will forget when that dense long envelope came in the mail, bulging with happiness. I opened reverently to discover my very own Lisa Whelchel fan club membership card and this 8 x 10 glossy black and white picture. It was the holy grail. Every so often I would get more pictures in the mail. Here is Lisa cooking in the kitchen with her brother! Here is casual Lisa, formal wear Lisa, Lisa on the Facts of Life set!
She was 15 years older than me. But true love waits. And I was sure that by the time I was grown enough to move to LA, she’d be there waiting for me. Until the day I got the most bittersweet fan club letter of them all. Lisa was getting married. And adding insult to injury? She was marrying a pastor on staff at Jack Hayford’s Church on the Way in Van Nuys, CA. The horror! She was marrying a PENTECOSTAL PASTOR! This simultaneously confirmed that she was perfect for me, and yet dashed my hopes of a future in LA.
I continued to be an adoring fan, and carried the membership card in my wallet for years. That way, I could glimpse her wherever I was and whatever I was doing. Though my membership expired in 1988, I never removed the card. It was how I would have wanted to be identified and remembered: this was Jonathan Martin. He was a member of the Lisa Whelchel fan club.
Lisa went on to home school her kids and write books about parenting. From contemporary Christian music populated by synthesizers to the parenting books—it is a Christian subculture tragedy romance from start to finish.
It was heartbreaking to be certain, and yet it confirms the profound truth of a wise song I once heard about the realities of growing up. I’m not sure, maybe Dylan wrote it. I conclude with the haunting words of that tune: “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have…the facts of life, the facts of life.”
Yes friends, it does indeed take a lot to get ‘em right…when you are learning the facts of life.
August 2, 2012 Permalink
Today I’d like to file a missing person’s report for Jesus of Nazareth. Has anybody seen Him lately?
Not a sentimental Jesus–not a liberal Jesus who serves as little more than a symbol of bland tolerance or a conservative Jesus who serves as little more than a mascot for culture wars. But the surprising, bewildering, befuddling Jesus of the gospels who alternately captures and breaks my heart–the Jesus who is never easily fit into the rigid alternatives offered to us by the world. Have you seen Him?
For weeks now (and sometimes it feels like years), I’ve been pulled into conversations about doctrine, polity, politics, culture. There are conversations about the left and the right, conversations about Moses and Paul, conversations about righteousness and justice and equality. Scriptures are cut and pasted onto rockets that soar over my head and occasionally land on my lawn. And I don’t mind talking about any of these things. But it’s my job to talk about Jesus, and more importantly it’s my passion.
I am not disturbed by much that goes on around me, by neither notorious sinners nor Pharisees. I have spent enough time playing both parts in my own way to be surprised by what either is capable of. Storms in culture and my life do not disturb me too much no matter how much the sea is raging, so long as I don’t lose sight of Him. But when I can’t see Him, that it when I am capable of being frightened.
Alas, that seems to be the storm we are in, where almost anything and everything about culture and Scripture is on the table for discussion save the direct example of Jesus of Nazareth–His stories, His teachings, His heart. I am aware that this could sound pious, like I think I understand the “real” Jesus in some special way. But that is not the case. I actually find Jesus to be extraordinarily disrupting and unsettling, and there have been and still are plenty of times I’d prefer to escape His gaze. Yet I’ve grown strangely at ease with the disruptive force that is Jesus, so much so that I’d rather be unsettled by Him than comfortable without Him.
He started disrupting me in my early 20′s, when my friend’s father was dying of AIDS. I saw Jesus in his gaunt skeleton of a face. I saw Jesus in the face of the foul-mouthed social worker who cared for him so tenderly. I felt indicted for my tightly constructed, ordered middle class religious world. Jesus’ lack of domesticity and decorum frightened me, as did the undomesticated people He cared most about and ran with. I was surprised that I had the lost the ability to find Him in the places I had expected to find Him, and to find Him in places I was sure He did not belong. Unwittingly, I was drug out with the tide of the gospel texts. I was no longer able to “use” Scripture like I had some claim over it, no proof-texting or arguing for conclusions I had already made. I was being used and dominated by the truth of those stories, entering then as a participant rather than a spectator.
When I began to talk about the things I had found that I was not looking for, Jesus began to get me into trouble. And He still is. Over and over again, I keep bringing up Jesus. I keep asking what difference it would make if the figure that we read about in those gospels were to be inserted into our conversations and our current events. What would He say? What would He do? What is He saying? What is He doing?
I’ve learned by now that this approach is never going to go over for some people in my world. On Sunday, I preached one of those sermons that hunted me down against my wishes–a message about how Jesus stood up for the guilty woman who was caught in the act of adultery, but how He would not let Peter stand up for Him when he pulled out his sword and cut off Malchus’ ear in the Garden of Gethsemane. I proposed that much of what we say and do these days comes from a place of feeling frightened and defensive for a Jesus who is not afraid and does not need our defense; that this is a time to stand with Jesus rather than to stand up for Him. To stand up for the guilty, to stand up for sinners, to stand up for people who are hurting and accused. I proposed that we should not let ourselves get sucked onto every ideological battleground, because even when motivated by love (like Peter) we often do more harm than good–and instead we need to be relentlessly focused on loving people in the way Jesus did.
This does not always go over because we believe that Jesus is worthy of our worship but irrelevant as an actual model for how we live our lives. He lived in simpler times. He lacked the sophistication of our strategies, our technology, and our powerful connections in culture. The way of Jesus is quaint to read about as history, but irrelevant to the complex questions of contemporary culture.
And yet what if He has never been more relevant? What if the world has never been more ripe for the surprise of His embodied grace? What if He still has the capacity to surprise, to astonish, to mystify, to defy all of our expectations? At one time it was the Roman empire that attempted to keep Jesus on the margins where He could not infect their culture with His stories and ideas. Today we don’t need an Empire to keep Jesus on the margins because His people are doing such a fine job of it. But what if we stopped working so hard to keep Him on the periphery and let Him be the center again? So that we interpret all of life through Jesus, all of culture through Jesus, all of religion through Jesus, all of Scripture through Jesus? What if His story–the stories of life and death and resurrection, were again the filter through which everything else were understood and the standard against which every other voice was measured?
I still have more than enough reasons to be unsettled by the disruption that is Jesus of Nazareth. I still have plenty of reasons to keep my distance from Him so I can stay comfortable. I am not comfortable with how lovesick He is for me, nor am I comfortable with how lovesick He makes me for others.
Nonetheless, today I miss Him.